KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) Outfielder Tarik El-Abour, who was diagnosed with autism at age 3 and did not speak until he was 6, signed a minor league contract with the Kansas City Royals on Friday, which was Autism Awareness Day.
El-Abour was assigned to the Royals’ extended spring training in Surprise, Arizona, and will open with one of Kansas City’s three rookie league clubs, which all start their seasons in June. The 25-year-old El-Abour has played in the independent Empire League, where he was named rookie of the year in 2016.
Reggie Sanders, a former Royals player who is an adviser to baseball operations, was instrumental in getting El-Abour signed. Sanders has a foundation that raises money to fund treatment, prevention and a possible cure for autism. Sanders said his 40-year-old brother is autistic.
El-Abour threw out the first pitch on Autism Awareness Day last year at Kauffman Stadium. Sanders received permission from manager Ned Yost for El-Abour to take batting practice and shag fly balls during pregame drills.
“He did so well, fit in so well, just being one of the guys,” Sanders said. “I said, ‘Lord, what do you want me to do with this?’ Six months went by and I woke up one day and said, ‘Oh my God, I think this would work in terms of the Kansas City Royals and Tarik.'”
Sanders approached general manager Dayton Moore during spring training about signing El-Abour.
“Dayton said, ‘What?'” Sanders said.
After the two talked, Moore agreed.
“Once I got the OK, I called his mom and she literally just bawled,” Sanders said. “She bawled because with any special needs kid, it’s a very difficult process. When I shared the message with her, she said, ‘Reggie, it’s so surreal for me to be able to experience this moment of gratitude for the organization.'”
Sanders described El-Abour as a speedy left fielder.
“He’s just a raw player,” Sanders said. “The coaches are all in in terms of being patient with him, making sure they are very clear … in terms of their language.”
After graduating from San Marino High School in California, El-Abour played at Pasadena City College. He earned a starting spot with Pacifica College, which merged with Bristol University in Anaheim. He played his senior season while earning a degree in business administration.
“We see this as an outstanding opportunity for Tarik and our organization,” Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo said. “I don’t think Tarik is looking at it the way others may be looking at it right now. Tarik is a professional baseball player. He wants to compete. He wants to play. He wants to get to the major leagues. I think that’s the best way for him to approach it. He’ll just blend in with our players and be part of the organization just like anybody else from a baseball perspective.”